Tag Archive for: Public sector

We wrote about the UK Ministry of Defence (MOD) Ajax armoured vehicle fiasco almost a year ago.  Now, the Public Accounts Committee (PAC), made up of politicians from all parties, has urged MOD to either fix or scrap the scheme by the end of 2022.

The programme has been running for 10 years and has failed to deliver a single usable vehicle. By December 2021, the Department had paid the supplier, General Dynamics, £3.2 billion, although Ministers now say there will be no more payment until problems are resolved. Noise and vibration problems proved to be a health hazard for soldiers during testing, and there were other performance issues too. The initial design had some 1,200 “capability requirements” and both buyer and supplier under-estimated the complexity of what they were trying to build. In their report published recently, the PAC said this.

The Department’s management of the programme was flawed from the outset as the programme was over-specified and the Department (MOD) and General Dynamics did not understand the scale of the technical challenge. We have seen similar failings again and again in the Department’s management of its equipment programmes. The Ajax programme also raises serious concerns about the Department’s processes and culture for testing whether new equipment is safe to use”.

The MOD still appears to have no idea when, if ever, the vehicles will go into service and will not commit to a target date. And assuming this does not end well in term of delivering adequate vehicles, we can expect a serious legal battle – unless the MOD just caves in and pays up, of course. As the PAC report says, “because of programme delays and missed milestones, the Department estimates that it owes General Dynamics £750 million for completed work, but has not paid anything since December 2020, and the parties remain in dispute”.

The PAC comments follow a report from the National Audit Office in March 2022 which went into more detail, and there were several points in that report that I found particularly shocking. For example:

The Army’s policy of regularly rotating posts means that the programme has had a high turnover of senior personnel, with five senior responsible owners (SROs) since November 2011, and four   programme directors and six project managers since September 2013. Defence Equipment & Support (DE&S) replaced the programme manager who had negotiated the reset immediately after the contract was updated in May 2019, affecting the programme’s corporate knowledge. It also replaced other senior programme personnel after the new director general was appointed in December 2019”.

That issue is largely within the control of the MOD, and the “revolving doors” staffing policy has been identified before as an issue; yet it still happens. And some senior roles were not even full-time before 2021! Then we have the Ajax Programme Office, responsible for running programme.

“The programme management office, which supports the SRO, has remained small for a programme of this scale and complexity. In 2016, six of the eight posts were vacant …  By April 2019, it had filled these vacancies to manage the contract renegotiation in 2018, but then reduced resources – at a time when the programme was missing milestones. In July 2020, the programme management office had dropped to four posts…”

What madness is this? A huge, critical and failing programme, and you reduce the programme management resources? Why? Would nobody take the jobs because they knew it was a doomed programme? Or did senior people want it to fail? Or did they think that a lack of resources might be a good excuse when the proverbial hit the fan?  Anyway, it is a shame the PAC didn’t pick up on this issue.

The NAO report identifies many other issues, from poor programme governance to specification issues, and really it is a textbook example of how not to run a major equipment procurement programme. It will certainly deserve its own chapter if and when “Bad Buying Part 2” emerges …

We are looking at increasing defence spending in the UK for obvious reasons following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. That is fine; but as a taxpayer, I don’t want to see a penny more of my money going to MOD until I see a detailed and convincing plan laying out how the organisation will ensure it doesn’t waste more billions on equipment.  Ajax isn’t the first disaster of this nature; it just happens too often.

The new UK public procurement legislation has been laid out in a Bill now which is being discussed and revised in the House of Lords. Leaving aside political comments, most independent experts, particularly the procurement academics and lawyers, see it as being somewhere in the range between “mildly disappointing” and “mildly positive”.  (Read an excellent assessment from Professor Sanchez-Graells here and a useful set of proposals for improvement from the UK Anti-corruption Coalition here).

I suspect that is inevitable. Public procurement aims to meet several different objectives, but sadly these are not all congruent – we can’t have it all. Public procurement has to balance:

  • Achieving fundamental value for money in what is being purchased – getting the right blend of quality and cost that enables the taxpayer to feel their money is being spent carefully and sensibly to generate the desired policy outcomes.
  • Minimising the chances of fraud or corruption by making such actions difficult or easily detected.
  • Encouraging innovative, dynamic, competitive markets – not just to help achieve future value for money in public spend, but because that will help the wider economy too.
  • Contributing towards wider UK government and societal objectives – economic, social, environmental or, as we now see, more overtly “political” in nature. (Using public procurement to support the government’s “levelling up” agenda for example is the type of political objective we’ve never really seen before in public procurement). 
  • Doing all of this in manner that keeps the transactional cost for both buyer and supplier to acceptable levels.

The problem is that these objectives can be conflicting. Simplify processes and deregulate, and you may reduce transactional cost and stimulate markets, but it will inevitably increase the chance of fraud and corruption. Focus more on the “social value” benefits, and if you are not careful, you will jeopardise basic value for money. And so on.

So it is impossible to keep everyone happy with regulations, and this is why it is difficult to assess the long-term effects of the new Bill. It will be at least two years before we see how the different objectives are being met or not met.

Perhaps the element that has most potential for transformation, but is also a major area of uncertainty, is the freedom for contracting authorities (CAs) to design new procurement processes. Will we see innovative and effective new ideas emerging, including innovative use of technology? Or will CAs quickly default to the “recommended” standard options that Cabinet Office are going to provide?

No doubt we’ll be writing further about this topic as the Bill proceeds into law, and there are some key areas where I’m not clear yet about the likely implications. The proposals on the role of technology, and the whole transparency area both have some positive aspects, for instance, but the devil is in the detail. However, here are a few predictions to be going on with.  

  1. The Cabinet Office standard processes will look pretty similar to the previous EU procedures, but with a bit more “negotiation” added in. But there will be so many caveats and warnings about (e.g.) equal treatment for suppliers that CAs will only use negotiation very cautiously…
  2. … unless they are running a corrupt procurement, where somebody in a powerful position wants a particular supplier to win. But of course that NEVER happens in the UK(!!)  I’m afraid we will see increasing corruption in public procurement, not just because of the greater freedoms, but because moral and ethical standards in the country are eroding from the top down.  
  3. Some lawyers are getting excited about the new rules on exclusion (mainly because of their complexity) that enable buyers to ban firms from bidding. But they will prove to be largely theoretical and decorative. I can’t imagine many hard-pressed procurement directors looking at the really complicated regulations for exclusions and saying anything other than “OK, let’s forget about this”.  (See Pedro Telles on this).
  4. Within a year or two, we will see suppliers complaining that the new rules don’t seem to have simplified public procurement.  I’m not criticising the Cabinet Office policy folk here – I’m just not sure it is possible to really simplify matters whilst trying to meet all those different goals. And no, I don’t have amazing transformative ideas myself, to be honest.
  5. Many older / less flexible public procurement professionals will retire or move out of the sector. “I’ve done things this way for 10/20/30 years, I just can’t be bothered with the hassle of learning all this new stuff now”.  I’m already hearing of that issue, and we will see a staffing crisis in public procurement (unless we go into a major recession that releases private sector professionals!)
  6. Given points 1 and 5, we will see more and more use of frameworks let by collaborative buying organisations, (Crown Commercial Services, YPO, NHSSC etc).  Unfortunately this is probably not good news for supply chain resilience in general, or for local, smaller or innovative suppliers. However, the “new” central procurement unit won’t have much impact.

Finally, there are metrics that will prove whether these predictions come to pass. If they do, we will see more single tender procurement exercises (only one bidder or a “direct award”).  We’ll see further growth of the buying aggregators. There will be a very low number of exclusions.

If I am wrong, we will see happy suppliers, more bidders per contract, fewer single supplier tenders, growth in contracts to local, smaller suppliers, social enterprises and so on. There will be fewer Private Eye-type scandal and corruption stories, and a decent number of dodgy suppliers excluded … So I hope I am just being a grumpy old pessimist! 

Life goes on despite the temptation to doomscroll Twitter and Facebook all day for the latest news on Russian atrocities.  But there hasn’t really been much else to cheer, and some news that should have generated more attention in normal times passed almost unremarked.

The Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) published a report last week on the provision of children’s social care (fostering and children’s homes) to UK local councils.  The CMA looks at issues from an economic point of view rather than as procurement experts, but their worrying findings in this case clearly indicate some major procurement (and market) issues.

The final report “found there is a shortage of appropriate places in children’s homes and with foster carers, meaning that some children are not getting the right care from their placement. Some children are also being placed too far away from where they previously lived or in placements that require them to be separated from their siblings. This shortage also means that high prices are often being paid by local authorities, who are responsible for placing children in appropriate settings, with these costs picked up by taxpayers”.

The CMA also commented on the risk of providers going bust – and yet in some parts of the market, providers are making what we might call “excess profits”, with margins of 20%.

“For the children’s homes providers in our cross-GB data set we have seen steady operating profit margins averaging 22.6% from 2016-20, with average prices increasing from £2,977 to £3,830 per week over the period, an average annual increase of 3.5%, after accounting for inflation”.

As an example of the sort of supplier that plays in this market (accepting of course that not all are of this nature), the Guardian recently featured a report about Robert McGuinness, who was paid £1.5m by two local authorities between 2015 and 2020. He owned a “community interest company” (CIC) which provided vocational training to children from 14-16, excluded from mainstream schools.

“The owner of a children’s home in Bolton shut down for “serious and widespread failures” spent thousands intended for educating marginalised children on drinking, foreign trips and his pub business, the Guardian can reveal”.

He siphoned money out of the CIC through a “director’s loan”  to invest in another of his businesses (running a bar).  The bar has since gone bankrupt and the liquidator says “there is currently no prospect” of the CIC settling the £100,000 loan repaid.  He also drives a Lamborghini – just the sort of public-spirited person you’d want to see running sensitive social services for youngsters.

The market failure evident in this sector has a number of causes. One ironically arises from the attempts to regulate the market. Even though that is well-meaning and certainly necessary to some extent, it creates more barriers to entry. Well-functioning markets see new entrants coming in and competing all the time, and also firms can exit the market relatively easily. Buyers can also switch suppliers easily in well-functioning markets; not the case here given the nature of the services.   

There are other barriers to entry in this case, such as the need for capital investment.  Over the past 20 years or so, the amount of public sector provision of such services has disappeared, replaced by private provision. One reason has been the need for investment in council-owned facilities. Rather than finding the money for that, as central government grants to local government have declined, councils have increasingly closed down their own facilities such as children’s homes and care homes  and bought those services from private providers.

That has weakened competition further. Then we can see a failure of procurement and contract management too. Do buyers know what margins are being made by their providers?  And how well are providers managed? I suspect because the users of the service are kids, there isn’t a lot of connection between the providers, the users and the commissioners (and budget holders) for the services.  Councils have seen headcount reduced in areas such as contract management too as income was squeezed.  The report on the gov.uk website agrees that something needs to be done.

“The CMA’s analysis finds that the main reason for this is the fragmented system by which services are commissioned, which means that local authorities are not able to leverage their role as the purchasers of placements or to plan properly for the future”.

To address these issues, the CMA recommends that the UK Government, Scottish and Welsh Governments, “create or develop national and regional organisations that could support local authorities with their responsibilities in this sector. These would improve commissioning by carrying out and publishing national and regional analysis and providing local authorities and collective bodies with guidance and by supporting them to meet more placement needs in their local area”.

I am no lover of aggregation of spend and centralisation of public sector procurement.  But this does seem like an area where a national “category strategy” and some serious procurement talent needs to be brought to bear.  

After our last article featuring criticism of the UK Ministry of Defence (MOD), there has been more positive news in recent days, even if it relates to past failure. The development relates to the organisation gearing up for a legal battle with a private equity firm headed by billionaire businessman Guy Hands.

Twenty-five 25 years ago, MOD sold off houses that were used for military families. The deal was controversial at the time and has continued that way, as it became more and more obvious that it was a lousy deal for the taxpayer and indeed for many occupants of these properties. As The Guardian described it,

“In 1996, the Conservative government sold 57,400 properties in the so-called “married quarters estate” to Annington Homes, which was then bought for £1.7bn by Nomura, a Japanese investment bank that employed (Guy) Hands. He later left Nomura to found the Terra Firma private equity firm, and bought Annington for £3.2bn in 2012”.

An odd aspect of the deal was that the MOD retained responsibility for maintenance and refurbishment of the properties, whilst paying what was supposedly a discounted rent on a 200-year lease. In other government PFI-type deals of the period (including a vary large one that I was personally involved with), the buyer of the property took on full responsibility for maintenance, so at least the taxpayer was transferring a significant element of risk.  In the MOD case, the aim was to use the money raised from the sale to renovate the properties – but of course that would benefit the new owners too.  But in any case, the MOD has not done a great job of maintaining the estate in the intervening years.

The commercial naivety shown by MOD has enabled the buyers of the property to make huge profits on the back of house price inflation, with an annual return averaging over 13%, according to the National Audit Office.  That gain included Annington issuing debt last year (against the property income stream) that enabled it to pay a dividend of £794m to its parent company. Here is what I said about the deal in the Bad Buying book.

“A National Audit Office (NAO) report in January 2018 laid out failings in terms of the buying and contract management process. The Department’s own calculations suggested retaining ownership would be cheaper – but for fairly nebulous “policy benefits”, the sale went ahead anyway. It then made very cautious estimates about future house price inflation and failed to build any mechanisms into the contract to claim a share of windfall gains. Of course, house prices rose faster than MOD’s cautious model, and the rate of return for Annington and its investors has been far higher than expected.

The NAO identified other problems – for some reason, MOD retained responsibility for maintaining the property, which it hasn’t done well, and there has been little collaboration between MOD and Annington to seek further benefits. Overall, it’s an example of failure that could comfortably sit in several different chapters here, but a lack of commercial understanding and negotiation skills in MOD were certainly amongst the issues; the NAO report estimated that the Ministry of Defence would have been between £2.2 and £4.2 BILLION better off if it had retained the estate”.

But the government is now taking an interesting stance. Defence Procurement Minister Jeremy Quin is trying to take back ownership of the properties through exercising “statutory leasehold enfranchisement rights”, a somewhat obscure legal manoeuvre. The MoD has sought to take two houses initially to test whether Annington can be forced out, whilst as you might expect, Annington claims the government has no right to do so and is behaving badly.  This may end up in court; but the firm has now offered a one-off payment of £105 to contribute to refurbishment if the MOD backs off from the legal route.

So that suggests Annington knows there is some chance it might lose in court; and arguably that is already a potential £105 million “procurement benefit” for MOD. Not bad on Andrew Forzani’s end of year savings report… But maybe there is more if the Minister has the appetite for a fight.

And just to complete the story, the chair of Annington is Baroness Liddell, an ex-Labour Party MP and now a Labour peer. It’s quite amusing hearing her now justifying the unfettered capitalism that Hands has always propounded, whilst it is the Conservative Party that tries to claw money back from the billionaire’s firm …

So the eastern arm of the high-speed rail programme HS2 from London up to Leeds, has been cancelled. Well, what a surprise. The biggest money pit dug in the UK for a long, long time has become too deep even for this spendthrift government. As Construction News reported,

“The eastern leg of HS2 phase 2b between Birmingham and Leeds has been scrapped by the government as part of its Integrated Rail Plan (IRP) for the Midlands and the North. The cost-cutting on HS2, which the government estimates will save around £18bn, was unveiled … by transport secretary Grant Shapps alongside pledges to upgrade local and intercity rail links in the regions. The £96bn investment package will cut journey times between many towns and cities, and increase the capacity of the rail network, Shapps said”.

I wrote here and here about HS2, with some thoughts on why huge programmes fail and how it sometimes seems that everyone involved with such programmes has an incentive to mislead the public – and often some of the decision makers – about the true costs. 

Most of the press commentary about the recent decision has focused on the “betrayal” of the north of England and what this means to the Prime Ministers supposed “levelling up” agenda, which is aimed at spreading wealth from the south of England to the north.  But surely a bigger question is whether the rest of HS2 should be going ahead, given the costs and a business case that look weaker and weaker as time goes by.  I pointed out a year ago that the initial business case was, in effect, a fiddle or a fix, designed to justify the programme.  As I said then:

“The business case for HS2 was always highly questionable. It relied on ascribing a value to the extra 20 minutes or so the passengers would have because of their somewhat faster journey from London to Birmingham. It assumed that the journey time was “wasted” from a benefit point of view, which is clearly not true (have they never heard of smartphones or laptops?), and also assumed that passengers wouldn’t use the extra 20 minutes by staying in bed a little longer!”

Now the new issue of Private Eye magazine has pointed out that the initial business case also made it clear that the whole programme would only offer value for money if it was all completed. The full benefits of “Northern Powerhouse Rail”, some of which is still going ahead, were also conditional on the HS2 leg to Leeds.

Private Eye also points out that economic growth in the UK has been slower than the figures used in the 2015 business case, which reduces the return further. And of course, the pandemic has driven a major drop in rail usage, and it is far from clear at the moment whether pre-Covid traffic levels will return, given what appears to be a seismic change in working habits and the growth of hybrid home /office working patterns. 

So we are now in the crazy situation where the government is subsidising existing rail companies and lines by billons a year because of the lower levels of usage, whilst spending £60+ billion on the western arm of HS2. Think what that money could do to improve the creaking railway system in the north of England, the trans-Pennine routes, commuter services into Manchester, Liverpool or Leeds, getting Sunderland connected properly… I am not anti-rail, I should say, but I do not believe HS2 is a good use of public money in such huge quantities.

I also have doubts about the HS2 programme’s ability to avoid Bad Buying in terms of how it spends money with suppliers, but that’s another issue altogether!

Another UK pandemic-related supplier appointed in haste without competition (and perhaps without proper due diligence) appears to have failed in performance terms.

Immensa Health Clinic is being investigated scrutiny after the UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA) found at least 43,000 people may have been given a “false negative” Covid test result.  That has serious consequences – if those people carried on working and mixing with others, when they were actually suffering with Covid, they may have passed on the virus to others.

That has led to operations at the firm’s privately run laboratory in Wolverhampton being suspended.  The NHS test and trace operation said about 400,000 samples had been processed by that lab, most of which will have been negative results, but around 43,000 people, mainly in the south of England, may have been given incorrect negative PCR test results between 8 September and 12 October. It doesn’t appear to be the kits but rather the analysis at fault – a people problem rather than an equipment issue, by the sound of it.

Immensa was only founded in May 2020 by Andrea Riposati, a former management consultant and owner of a DNA testing company. He is also the founder of Dante Labs, which is under investigation in the UK by the Competition and Markets Authority over its PCR travel tests.  But within three months of Immensa’s birth, it won a £119m PCR testing contract awarded by the Department of Health (DHSC).  That was awarded without being put out to tender, like so many contracts we have seen though the pandemic, some genuinely urgent and others less so.

Back in January this year, the Sun on Sunday newspaper found that workers at the Wolverhampton lab appeared to be sleeping, fighting, playing football and drinking whilst “working”.  (Pretty much like life in the civil service, really). The government said then it would speak to Immensa as it took “evidence of misconduct extremely seriously”.  Despite this, Immensa won another contract for £50 million in July.

We haven’t seen any suggestion of corruption, officials or politicians on the make, or Immensa doing anything dodgy. But again, there will be reasonable questions asked about lack of competition, lack of robust contract management, and why even after the warning signs, further work was given to the firm.

Which brings me on to the recent report, Coronavirus: Lessons learned to date, from the UK parliament’s Health and Social Care Committee and the Science and Technology Committee, and elected members from all parties.  The report is rightly very positive about the vaccine procurement programme.

The procurement model deployed by the Vaccine Taskforce of making decisions at risk, outside conventional procurement procedures, proved highly effective. Lessons from this success should be applied to other areas of Government procurement.

I’m in agreement with looking at useful lessons learnt, but we can’t be naïve about this. This quote about the way vaccines were bought also comes from the report.

Dominic Cummings said: “Patrick Vallance and his team were saying that the actual expected return on this was so high that even if it does turn out to be wasted billions, it is still a good gamble in the end.”

This is absolutely true, and highlights the key issue of risk and reward.  The fact is, there are very few other purchases by government where the balance is similar to the vaccine example. Getting vaccines faster certainly saved thousands of lives and (possibly) billions of pounds in government expenditure.  But taking risks in procurement of other goods or services just does not have the same potential.  Who would seriously place orders for five different armoured vehicles, IT systems or management consultancy firms just in the hope that one or two of them worked out well?

There may well be learnings around how the vaccine team was run, but talk of getting rid of procurement process, rules and so on is unwise and will lead to waste and, unfortunately, to more fraud and corruption. More transparency would help alleviate some of those risks (see my paper for Reform here), but I suspect some of those in favour of radical procurement change are thinking more of the millions they, their chums and associates can extract from the public purse.    

I still don’t know if there will be a “Bad Buying Returns” book or perhaps an updated edition of the first volume, but the stories keep on coming in terms of case studies for potential inclusion.  The latest at least has an element of humour, which is a change from most of the pandemic-related bad buying we’ve seen over the last 18 months. It is, of course, the “Marble Arch Mound”.

Westminster council commissioned a mound or small hill to be built in London, at Marble Arch. It was to be a tourist and visitor attraction, designed to get people back into the West End of London and to shop in Oxford Street. The temporary 25-metre-high artificial hill, built on the corner of Oxford Street and Hyde Park, was supposed to be aesthetically beautiful and a great viewing point over London.  

The marketing drawings showed quite sizeable trees and shrubs covering its contours. However, when it opened a couple of weeks ago, there was dismay from visitors, who were annoyed at paying at least £4.50 for what one described as “London’s worst attraction”.  Instead of beautiful greenery, early visitors were greeted with sights of rubble, building works and scaffolding from the viewing platform, which was covered in brown turf. A tidy row of wheelie bins was arranged at its foot.

This episode seems to illustrate several of the drivers of “bad buying” that I discuss in the book. There is the tendency for politicians to like “vanity projects” – spending money where a business case in weak, but the politicians feel that they are creating a “legacy” or something that will make them more popular. Our Prime Minister Boris Johnson is of course a past exponent of this, with his ridiculous Garden Bridge (let’s blame actress Joanna Lumley as well for that), which wasted over £50 million and also saw some truly appalling procurement. There was also the costly Thames Cable Car and his crackpot ideas for a floating airport and a tunnel (or was it a bridge?) between Scotland and Ireland. 

In the case of the Mound, there seems to have been an arrogant attitude from a few council leaders who pushed the scheme through. There was no real consultation, and it was apparently not voted on by all councillors. That attitude again is often a precursor to bad decisions – witness my local council wasting millions on badly timed property purchases in Camberley, with decisions made by a small cabal without involving most of the elected representatives, let alone taxpayers.

But there also seems to have been a failure in more prosaic terms here around the specifications for the Mound, and tying down the cost of the construction. In May, the council reported the total build and operating costs would be £3.3m and £2m would be recouped largely through ticket sales to visitors. But now, costs are expected to be at least £6m, and it is not clear as yet exactly why that is the case. Amid all the light-hearted comments about the fiasco, the council’s deputy leader, Melvyn Caplan, has resigned and the political ramifications are growing.

However, the Mound is now free to visit, and ironically it has become busy as visitors flock to see if it is really as bad as the reports suggest … and let’s face it, Madame Tussauds still rakes in the cash so perhaps there is hope for the Mound after all.

Returning to the Greensill supply chain finance (SCF) scandal, the excellent BBC Panorama programme earlier this month dug further into the affair, including the role of ex-Prime Minster David Cameron.  It is well worth watching and gives a clear explanation of how the Greensill business model “worked” and eventually unwound. Panorama exposed how deeply involved Cameron was with the Greensill business, and says that he allegedly made $10 million for two and a half years of part-time work with the firm.

Cameron told Panorama he knew nothing about the dodgier aspects of Greensill, but if he didn’t know quite how flaky Greensill’s business model was, then he was naïve, as well as greedy. If he did know, and Panorama suggests he was aware of some of the key issues, then maybe he will end up in court alongside others who I’m pretty convinced will end up there. 

At the core of Greensill’s model was the ability to attract finance by claiming that his SCF loans were low risk because they were based on issued invoices that would be paid by the customer. Some of Greensill’s finance came from the bank in Germany that the firm owned – Panorama suggested that up to £2.5 billion might be lost from that source.  Greensill also raised vast amounts of cash via bonds issued through Credit Suisse – some $10 billion. Again that was presented to investors as very low risk, as loans were backed by invoices, so the cost of raising that money was low for Greensill.

It now transpires that some of the “invoices” that money was advanced against were not invoices at all in the way that any procurement or finance person (or frankly any sensible person) would recognise.  Rather, they were just vague expectations or hypothetical transactions concernign future income from customers of the firms to whom Greensill was lending money.  The Gupta steel firms in particular raised huge amounts of money from Greensill on the basis that they would at some point sell “some stuff” to “some companies”! The BBC suggests that other invoices were simply fake.

So this was totally unsecured lending to firms such as those in the Gupta group, rather than lending backed by real transactions and future income flows.  And guess what – much of the money Greensill lent is now not being repaid.

Lex Greensill told Panorama that he “did not mislead any investor, depositor or customer”. He said the predicted sales were “future receivables which are commonplace in the financial services market”. The loans were based on future trade that was likely to occur from current customers.  In fact, even this wasn’t true, as firms who were listed as “current customers” simply weren’t, according to Panorama.  Greensill then explained they didn’t even have to be current customers. He made all the right disclosures to Credit Suisse, he says ….

But back to the statement that this approach – lending money on predicted future invoices – is commonplace. It is not. Supply Chain Finance technology is covered well by Spend Matters and whilst it wasn’t my personal core area of interest, I met enough players in that market over my years editing Spend Matters to know that it was almost always based on actual invoices.

There were firms that were looking to base financing on invoices that had been received by the buyer but not yet approved, or invoices that would be issued in the future but were for agreed work (e.g. stage payments), with the buyer irrevocably committing to pay.  But even those approaches were seen as somewhat risky and daring because of the lending risk (what if the buyer didn’t approve the invoice?)

Nobody I ever spoke to was talking about payment against some totally imaginary future invoices, whether identified with current customers or not. So Greensill is talking nonsense when he suggests that lending against future receivables is some sort of common practice. But then he always talked a lot of nonsense.

On a related note, the Boardman “Review into the development and use of supply chain finance (and associated schemes) in governmentcame out last month.  It looks into how Greensill worked within government and the access he had to senior civil servants and ministers. I’m still getting to grips with that, so I may be back to this issue again.

The Guardian newspaper reported yesterday: “Ministers are considering renationalising the entire probation service in England and Wales, the Guardian understands, in the latest twist in a long-running saga to unwind Chris Grayling’s disastrous changes to the sector”.

You may not be surprised by that, or shocked to learn that the probation services outsourcing is a case study in my forthcoming book, Bad Buying – How Organisations Waste Billions Through Failures, Frauds and F**k-ups.

The analysis sits in a chapter that looks at failures caused by the buyer failing to understand a market or markets. Or, as in this case, having a foolish belief that entirely new markets can be created by sheer willpower – and throwing some government cash at the private sector, of course.

A bit of history first. The UK government decided in 2013 to outsource much of its probation services work, despite warnings from the well-respected Institute of Government that it would be “highly problematic”. The work included the management and rehabilitation of offenders, combining an element of punishment, such as monitoring the conditions of prisoners’ release, with the desire to reduce re-offending and help the offender make a useful contribution to society.

The UK Ministry of Justice, then under the command of minister Chris Grayling (who, you may also not be surprised to learn, crops up several times in my book), created 21 Community Rehabilitation Companies (CRCs) to manage offenders who posed low or medium risk. In February 2015, the CRCs were transferred to eight, mainly private sector, suppliers working under contracts that were to run to 2021-22.

But the implementation was rushed, there was little of the innovation that was promised from suppliers and 19 of the 21 companies ultimately involved failed to meet targets for reducing the frequency of re-offending. In July 2018, the Ministry announced it would terminate its contracts with CRCs 14 months early, in December 2020.

Suppliers didn’t do well either. The National Audit Office estimated cumulative losses of £294M for the firms if contracts continued to the end date, and Working Links, one of the providers, collapsed into administration in February 2019.  Finally, David Gaulke, by now the Minister in charge, announced in May 2019 that the contracts would not be offered to private firms.

Most probation services were in effect re-nationalised after one of the highest profile UK public sector buying failuresin recent years. At that point, some minor services such as the provision of unpaid work and accredited programmes were to be offered up to the private and voluntary sectors. But that now appears to have been abandoned too.

There were clearly many problems here, but fundamental is the issue of an entirely new “market” being created, without real understanding upfront of what the work involved, what capabilities would be needed by the winning firms, how the right commercial models would be constituted or how competition could be maintained and stimulated. 

“If you build it, he will come”, the tagline from the legendary film Field of Dreams, seems to be how some governments think when it comes to creating markets. And generally, some entities will emerge from the undergrowth, bidding to carry out pretty much whatever government asks them to  – drawn by the potential rewards, of course. But this does not create vibrant, sustainable, successful markets in itself.

The pandemic crisis broke just as I was signing off the proof copy for my new book, “Bad Buying – How organizations waste billions through failures, frauds and f*ck-ups“. I thought briefly about adding some pandemic-related stories, but quickly decided there wasn’t time to do it justice without delaying publication this autumn – which neither Penguin nor I wanted.

But I may well want to write something substantial about the procurement issues connected with the pandemic, because it is clear already that there are many. Not all of these by any means are “bad buying”, I would stress. I’m sure we will find that there is some great work going on, in the centre of government, in hospital trusts, in the NHS Supply Chain network, and indeed across many other organisations in local government, social care sector and so on. If I do write a book, I hope and expect that there will be as many stories of great procurement work and even heroism, as well as some failures and issues to report.

Certainly, there are enough stories emerging that will require further investigation. The mis-management of the “pandemic stockpile” of PPE (personal protective equipment) is one. Although this has had some media attention, it looks to me like a bigger failing than has really been exposed so far. How was so much of the stock allowed to get out of date, for a start? What about the “lost” items – a failure of stock control and information, or something more criminal?

PPE generally has had plenty of coverage in the media, and some of it has not been fair. Once the pandemic took hold, the global demand for PPE shot up to an extent that supply problems were inevitable. But there will be questions asked about whether the UK was agile, flexible and fast enough in its response – and no doubt other countries will ask the same thing. That will lead on to interesting debate about the whole structure and strategy for NHS procurement.

Then there is the UK’s “ventilator” challenge, in which various firms were asked to produce ventilators – with varying degrees of success. There was also the very odd decision to ask eBay to build a marketplace for PPE, which did not go well, when others such as Basware and Proband could have done it in hours based on existing capability.

That last point highlights a real frustration. There is just no transparency around how and why certain firms are being awarded contracts. Of course, we understand you can’t spend months running an “OJEU” compliant procurement process in the middle of the crisis. But it is not unreasonable for us to want to know something about how and why firms like Clipper, eBay, Palantir, Deloitte and others are being chosen, and the terms of the contracts they are working under.

If the silence continues, then we might start thinking that these decisions haven’t been taken for the right reasons. I doubt very much whether brown paper envelopes have exchanged hands, but there  are other forms of “corruption”.

I’d argue any supplier selection decision that is influenced by factors  other than objective business reasons is corrupt to some extent – that includes simple laziness (“I can’t be bothered to do the research or analysis so I’ll just give this random firm I’ve heard of the contract”), nepotism (“giving the contract to your mate”), or choosing a firm based on the fact that you rather fancy getting a job with them one day in the future.

That last idea was suggested to me as a reason for some of the tech decisions we’re seeing – “the techies in government all want to work for someone sexy like Google, Apple, or Amazon, so they find ways of working with them in their current jobs and hope to get noticed” was the suggestion.  Mind you, that doesn’t stack up with the route chosen on the tracking app…

I’ve always tended to go with the cock-up rather than the conspiracy theory when things go wrong in government. But we need some visibility around all this “emergency procurement”, or we might start thinking the worst.